Cosmopolitanism and Secularism:
Working Hypotheses

by Étienne Balibar
Listen to Étienne Balibar:

Étienne Balibar: . . . I will be trying to reverse the implicit rule of this kind of event.  Far from coming with positions for which I would argue, I mean already established positions for which I would argue, trying to convince others that they can be shared, I'm coming with doubtful hypotheses in the hope that they will become challenged and possibly dismantled.  I come from an intellectual and political tradition whose central principle -- not always put into practice, I have to admit -- was that only error leads to knowledge.  I also share the idea, central in the work and method of Edward Said and other so-called post-colonial theorists, that difference of cultural traditions and backgrounds is not an obstacle to discussion and understanding, provided it is consciously recognized as a site of repressed prejudices that need to be systematically unraveled and submitted to self-criticism.

Allow me to be more specific and come to the subject itself.  What the conjunction "and" in my title "Secularism and Cosmopolitanism" might suggest is that there is a complementarity of the two notions, or that we should try to build or rebuild a discourse combining the definition of secularism, even secularist perspective, with cosmopolitan perspective.  I will readily admit that, in my view, these are positive notions and values, which form part of civic and democratic understanding of the political.  Simultaneously, I have become aware that their combination is profoundly contradictory.  Each of them in the contemporary situation -- this situation is a result of a long history -- essentially undermines, destructs, or deconstructs the meaning and stability of the other, putting its validity into question.  This situation makes it probably more difficult, not less, to refer to them as complementary aspects of the same democratic project.  So, in a sense, what I want to do is to make it more complicated to associate cosmopolitanism and secularism within a single problematic, as many of us might perhaps be tempted to do with different intentions in mind, either affirmative or negative.  In particular, I am trying to work against a tendency to which I myself owe a great deal of my civic commitment, a tendency to see cosmopolitanism and secularism as natural components of modernity, which, as we know, can also become a reason for some of our contemporaries to challenge their validity and criticize their belonging to hegemonic discourse, essentially that of Eurocentric and European modernization of the world, in other terms, an imposition on the rest of the world of Europe's anthropological and constitutional assumptions during and after the formal colonial era.

This kind of preoccupation leads me to formulate rather convoluted questions, I must admit.  For example, supposed that, in the conditions of contemporary politics, no cosmopolitan project can acquire meaning without involving a secular dimension, so that no such thing as, for example, religious cosmopolitanism is thinkable.  Why is it, then, that, initially at least, a secular, not to say secularist, understanding of the construction of the cosmopolis adds difficulties and contradictions to those already contained in the classical idea of instituting citizenship at a transnational level or granting it with a transnational dimension?  Why is it that the explicit characterization of the public sphere as a non-religious or secular one, which seemed quite clear, if not universally accepted, at the level of the single city or the nation, becomes confusing and possibly self-destructive when we tentatively raise our definition of the political to the apparently unlimited, non-exclusive space of the human world?  How could the obstacles contained in such a representation, adding utopia to utopia as it were, nevertheless figure a path to discussing political tasks and the kind of political process involved in the cosmopolitical horizon for our societies?  And conversely, suppose that, at least in some regions of the world, or perhaps in all of them, each time in a singular way, there no longer exists any possibility to ground and implement a secular agenda in politics, to vindicate secularism in the regulation of social conflicts or development of such public services as education, healthcare, urbanism, etc., without referring to a cosmopolitan way of defining the political.  Suppose, in other terms, there is no viable, no consistent, no progressive or democratic secularism that can be less than cosmopolitan, so that, in particular, secularism defined in purely national terms, or subjected to the mere imperatives of national unity and national security, would instantly become contradictory and in fact self-destructive.  Again, why is it that such a formula does not so much remove obstacles as in fact creates them, or, to be more cautious, reveals them in a manner that precludes immediate and visible solutions?

In other terms, what I have in mind in the first place is the fact that secularism and cosmopolitanism -- now again hotly, hotly debated issues -- remain indeed less and less separable.  More than ever there is a necessity of discussing each of them in terms of its intersection with the other.  However, their conjunction produces a terrible vacillation in almost each and every one of the apparent certainties that we associate with the names of secularism and cosmopolitanism, the vacillation that is indeed so violent that it can be doubted whether they will survive this trial in a recognizable form.  I'm tempted here also -- because in a minute I will refer to some of her analysis in this sphere -- to simply borrow the marvelous title of Joan Scott's seminal book on the constitution of republican citizenship in French constitutional history: Only Paradoxes to Offer.  I do so because I believe that such a formula aptly indicates what in other places I have suggested is the intrinsic property of the development of citizenship as a historical institution, namely its antinomic or contradictory character or its capacity to generate internal contradictions and become in some circumstances self-destructive.  I try to associate this with the idea that citizenship, at the same time, is a necessary relation to processes of democratization and nevertheless remains irreducible to pure democracy.  I admit that this represents an extremely quick shortcut, but let me suggest that along those lines, those of discussion of antinomies of citizenship, cosmopolitanism and secularism are indeed parts of a project of democratizing the accepted forms of democracy or democratic citizenship themselves that cannot be brushed aside, but at the same time they indicate limits, contemporary limits, of the possibility of expanding citizenship in a democratic manner, limits which could prove insurmountable for a long time perhaps.  And this is even more the case when their conflictual interdependency is perceived. . . .

There is no such thing as a purely religious conflict, but in today's world a conflict that pits religious representations and allegiances against one another, or against their secular antithesis, is always already entirely political.  Perhaps that was always the case, but modernity has changed, especially since the relativization of national boundaries and sovereignties and the increasing importance of migrations made it impossible to assign religious discourse to the place of the particular, or particularism, whereas secular discourse of public reason would quite naturally occupy the place of the universal.  In fact, we always have to do with conflictual universalities, conflictual notions of the universal, which may explain why it proves increasingly difficult to project a dichotomy of private and public realms on the distinction of religious membership and legal citizenship.  If public discourse and the institution that derives its legitimacy from a national and nationalist tradition is not more universal, or universalistic, than transnational religious discourse, in any case, its greater degree of universality cannot be asserted a priori.  It has to be proved, and experienced, especially in terms of its emancipatory power.  Whenever religious difference becomes conflictual, and we must always investigate the practical circumstances which crystallize the conflict, this conflict is virtually a cosmopolitical one.  This also explains the paradoxical relationship between the neighboring but distinct notions of cosmopolitics and cosmopolitanism.  It is not the case that the reality and visibility of cosmopolitics as a highly conflictual form of politics either prepares for a cosmopolitan era or simply destroys its possibility, but it opens the field of competition between alternative cosmopolitanisms, themselves conflictual, just as I will try to show that it forces us to consider alternative secularisms.  Cosmopolitics qua politics precisely is a battlefield for alternative, antithetic forms of cosmopolitanism, just as it is also probably a battlefield for alternative, antithetic forms of secularism. . . .

Étienne Balibar is Professorial Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Emeritus Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the University of Paris 10 Nanterre, and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.  Balibar also teaches seminars at the Centro Franco-Argentino de Altos Estudios de la Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.  His numerous books include Reading Capital (with Louis Althusser, 1965), On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1976), Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (with Immanuel Wallerstein, 1991), Masses, Classes, Ideas (1994), The Philosophy of Marx (1995), Spinoza and Politics (1998), Politics and the Other Scene (2002), We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (2004).  Balibar is a member of Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (Paris), with a particular interest in the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.  He is also co-founder of Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and acting chair of l'Association Jan Hus.  This lecture was delivered at the Birkbeck Institute on 6 May 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the lecture.
| Print